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Cuba’s EcuRed: a socialist Wikipedia?

December 30, 2010

According to Reuters, the goal of Cuba’s new “wikipedia-like online encyclopedia”, called EcuRed, is to present the socialist country’s “version of the world and history”. That may be true, but it’s not exactly how the site explains itself:

EcuRed is a collaborative and solidaristic encyclopedia. It is a Cuban project that seeks universal reach and participation; it offers its participants an interactive space to publish open content. Its philosophy is the accumulation and development of knowledge with a democratizing and non-profit objective, from a de-colonizing point of view.

EcuRed es una enciclopedia colaborativa y solidaria. Es un proyecto cubano que busca alcance y participación universales; ofrece a sus participantes un espacio interactivo para publicar contenidos abiertos. Su filosofía es la acumulación y desarrollo del conocimiento con un objetivo democratizador y no lucrativo, desde un punto de vista descolonizador.

As of this writing, I’ve got more questions than answers, but my speculation is that the site is one part of the Cuban government’s ongoing preparations for a steady expansion of its citizens’ access to online services.

Recall that back in March of 2008, Raul Castro’s administration authorized the unrestricted sale of computers (and DVD players) to Cuban citizens. Despite this, the relatively high cost (due, in large part, to the US embargo) continues to ensure that private ownership of a personal computer remains a luxury reserved for the elite, foreigners, or perhaps those with especially successful relatives overseas. Earlier this year the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported a total of 700,000 computers on the island of over 11 million inhabitants, which works out to 62 per 1,000 residents or just over one-third of the average penetration rate for the region. Of course, most of those computers are located in government institutions, which means they are highly monitored but also, according to the Cuban government, prioritized for social uses, “from health and education to government-operated computer clubs in every municipality” (Reuter’s paraphrasing). In other words, a computer in Cuba is meant to serve more citizens than a computer in capitalist countries.

Cell phones, meanwhile, were legalized one month later, in April of 2008. Here too, cost remains a massive barrier for most Cubans. As of 2008 a cell phone contract with the state-run monopoly, Cubacel, cost $120, or about six months salary for a state employee. A basic (voice and text) Nokia phone was going for $75, and local calls cost $0.30 per minute. (Here too, the US embargo is a major factor in keeping costs high.) Even today Cubans rely almost entirely on text messages and missed calls in order to avoid the cost of mobile voice communication (although the same can be said for the majority of the population in many other Latin American countries).

Even when Cuban citizens do have access to networked personal computers and/or mobile devices, it’s far from certain that they will be able to surf the open internet. The degree of access permitted by the Cuban government is the subject of much debate.  Some visitors to the island report that Cubans are unrestricted and may peruse foreign news sites, such as the New York Times and BBC, at will. Others claim that Cuban citizens are restricted to a tightly regulated intranet that blocks any content not specifically permitted by the State. I am not sure of the truth, but an October 2006 report, written by freelance reporter Claire Voeux and published by Reporters Without Borders, contains a concise and convincing account which suggests that Cubans may indeed access the “open” internet, though they remain severely limited by the lack of computers and bandwidth, the high cost of online minutes (unless they use a networked computer at work), and government monitoring and interference that can vary from place to place and time to time. Meanwhile, according to and as of this writing, Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Blogger, WordPress, and Facebook are all among the top ten Cuban web destinations, with El Nuevo Herald and the BBC occupying the 11th and 18th spots, respectively. Cubans are also apparently able to utilize mobile technologies to connect to the world wide web. Posting a Twitter message, for example, is possible if you can afford to spend one convertible peso (roughly $1.10).

The bandwidth issue is expected to be resolved, or at least drastically improved,  sometime in the second half of 2011, when an undersea fiber optic cable connecting Cuba, Venezuela, and Jamaica is finally installed. Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. The new cable from Venezuela is projected to increase data and voice connection speeds by a factor of 3,000 and reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.

Most Cubans are not likely to be your Facebook friend anytime soon, but the promise of radically increased bandwidth and marginally increased access to digital networking technologies, in conjunction with new opportunities for income and other signals of expanding liberty, indicates that the Cuban government has begun to envision an online future for its citizens. How the Cuban internet will develop is an open question. China offers one model, but the EcuRed project indicates that Cuba is striking out on a path of its own design.

According to TeleSur and Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service, EcuRed began in 2009 as a project involving experts from the Cuban Ministries of Informatics and Communications; Science, Technology, Environment; Education; Higher Education; and Public Health, as well as the National Institute of Health. TeleSur also highlights the “collaboration of scientists, workers, rural residents, and students”. The site itself is housed on servers managed by Cuba’s Computing and Electronics Youth Club (Joven Club de Computación y Electrónica / JCCE), which manages over 600 sites across the island for instruction in new technologies.

During the official launch ceremony on Dec. 14, the JCCE’s national director, Raúl Van Troi, stated that EcuRed “is a tool for ensuring that the world knows about Cuba” (“es una herramienta para que en el mundo se sepa sobre Cuba“). Indeed, most of the 20,489 articles available as of this writing seem to focus on various aspects of Cuban geography, society, and culture. For example, the categories with the greatest number of articles (as of this writing) are: Cuban Places (3,211); [Cuban] Place Histories (2,132); Cuban Revolutionary Martyrs (1,605); and Figures from Cuban History (966).

In contrast to WikiPedia, all of EcuRed’s “collaborators” must register with the site, and to do so they must have an email account ending with the .cu domain. In other words, despite EcuRed’s aspiration for “universal reach and participation”, only Cubans (or perhaps foreigners working within the Cuban economy) are able to contribute to the site. Further, those contributions will be closely tracked, with the user name and IP address displayed publicly and “all  information that a user has entered … stored in a database.” Of course, Wikipedia archives previous editions of articles and, I imagine, would be able to collect all of the changes made by a particular user or IP address. Wikipedia also makes public the IP address used by non-registered contributors. That said, Wikipedia is not a government with a history of suppressing speech deemed politically unacceptable, nor does Wikipedia have the ability or authority to do much beyond remove content or block users, even if it wanted to. The Cuban government, on the other hand, has the ability and (at least dubiously) the legal authority to respond in any number of ways, including monitoring the non-online activities of a contributor, denying them access to jobs or benefits, or throwing them in jail.

EcuRed’s policies do state that the stored information “will not be shared with third parties without [the contributor’s] consent, except in cases that violate these policies” (“no será compartida con terceras partes sin su consentimiento, excepto los casos en que se violen estas políticas“). It’s not clear, however, who the “second party” (ie. the owner and/or manager of the site) is in this case. The JCCE? Or the entire Cuban government, including the State intelligence services? Moreover, the policies in question are worded so as to leave much room for interpretation. For example:

Articles will not accept content considered as: discriminatory, obscene, disrespectful, aggressive, propagandistic or promotional, tendentious, defamatory, or pornographic. Articles with these contents will not be published; EcuRed reserves the right to block access to offenders, and if pertinent, to notify the Internet service provider.

Los artículos no admitirán contenidos considerados como: discriminatorios, obscenos, irrespetuosos, agresivos, propagandísticos o publicitarios, tendenciosos, difamatorios, o pornográficos. Los artículos con estos contenidos no serán publicados; EcuRed se reserva el derecho de bloquear el acceso del infractor, y de ser pertinente, notificarlo al proveedor de servicios de Internet.

Propaganda, disrespect, and tendentiousness, of course, are largely in the eye of the beholder. The oppositional Diario de Cuba, for example, refers to the entire site as an “internet propaganda offensive” (“ofensiva de propaganda en internet“). A similar judgment is implicit in the article published by Spain’s generally conservative El País, which quoted the title of a subsection of the entry on Fidel Castro – “sickness and glorious return” (“enfermedad y retorno gloriosos“) – without referencing, for instance, the generally objective and subdued account of Fidel’s political and military opposition to the Batista dictatorial regime. El País also selectively quoted the article on former US President, George W. Bush, which mentions “a long family tradition of dirty business, traps and governmental intrigue” (“una larga tradición familiar de negocios sucios, trampas e intrigas gubernamentales“) and claims that Bush “applied all possible methods of dirty war: clandestine prisons, kidnappings, extrajudicial processes, telephonic espionage, and kidnapping of mere suspects (“aplicó todos los métodos posibles de la guerra sucia: cárceles clandestinas, secuestros de personas, procesos extrajudiciales, espionaje telefónico y plagio de meros sospechosos“). While it’s true that Bush didn’t apply all possible methods, and terms like “dirty business” and “dirty war” are perhaps overly subjective, references to secret prisons, kidnappings (aka extraordinary rendition), warrantless wiretapping, and extrajudicial detentions are nonetheless objectively true.

Of course, there’s much that EcuRed omits, and this is more worrisome than the particular phrasing of the information that it does contain. There is no entry, for example, on Oswaldo Payá, or any of the other Cuban dissidents that are relatively well known outside of the island. The historical account contained in the entry on the Manuel Márquez Sterling Professional School of Journalism (Escuela Profesional de Periodismo Manuel Márquez Sterling) tellingly and abruptly ends in 1962. The article recounting the history of journalism in Jagüey Grande, meanwhile, cuts off in 1955. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no article dedicated to the concept of press freedom, investigative journalism, or anything similar. Though I have no way of testing the hypothesis, I imagine that any attempt to create an article on these subjects would end in failure.

Additionally, not all of EcuRed’s articles are open to modification. Pages can be “protected” for multiple reasons, including “to protect modifications of articles considered very valuable, with a high [degree of] consensus, or with an elevated repercussion” (“para proteger modificaciones de artículos que se consideren muy valiosos, con un alto consenso, o con una elevada repercusión“). Of course, the policies do not specify how value, consensus, and repercussion are determined, nor by who. It’s probably safe to say that Fidel’s biography, for example, is not open to modification. As of this writing, there are 547 pages specifically flagged as in need of improvement, but I see no indication as to the number of pages that have been “protected”.

So how should we evaluate EcuRed at this early stage? To begin, it seems highly likely that, despite the site’s stated ambitions, EcuRed’s failure to allow universal participation will prevent it from acquiring anything like universal reach. Spanish-speakers planning a visit to Cuba may find the wealth of localized information quite helpful, as will some researchers, but beyond that it’s hard to see why one would choose EcuRed as a primary source for information about general topics or, for that matter, issues related to Cuban history and politics that are treated extensively elsewhere.

That’s not, however, to say that EcuRed doesn’t offer solid information. To take just one example, the biographical entry on US President John F. Kennedy is roughly 3,800 words long and includes discussion of his family background, education, military service, and political life. As far as I can tell (though I’m certainly no expert on JFK or the events of that period), everything in the article is factual. At the same time, however, there is a clear focus on issues directly and indirectly related to Cuba and Cuban socialism. The 306 words under the subheading “foreign policy” (“política exterior“) are entirely dedicated to US / Cuban relations. This is followed by 431 words in a separate section on the October 1962 “Missile Crisis” (“Crisis de Octubre“) that paints Cuba’s role in a positive light. For example:

Between the 26th and 31st [of October] there was an exchange of messages between Nikita S. Khrushchev and Fidel [Castro]. Those signed by the Soviet leader evidence the unilateral nature of his actions and the underestimation with which he treated the small country; meanwhile those of the Cuban leader warned of the dangers and stuck firmly to the revolutionary principles.

Entre el 26 y el 31 hubo un intercambio de mensajes entre Nikita S. Jruschov y Fidel. En los firmados por el dirigente soviético se evidencia la unilateralidad de su actuación y la subestimación con que trataba al pequeño país; mientras que los del líder cubano alertaban sobre los peligros y se apegaban con firmeza a los principios revolucionarios.

Further below is a 267 word subsection on “Cuban relations” (“relaciones con Cuba“) that recounts in a general manner Kennedy’s efforts to clandestinely destabilize Cuba. All other discussion of Kennedy’s foreign policy is treated in a mere 229 words under the subheading of “other actions” (“otras acciones“). Two of the four paragraphs in that section refer to Kennedy’s attempts to “restrain the deployment of multiform popular struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean” (“frenar el despliegue de las multiformes luchas populares latinoamericanas y caribeñas“). The remaining two paragraphs describe Kennedy’s interventions in Vietnam, including the deployment of 16,000 military advisors, the authorization of “free-fire zones”, the use of napalm and agent orange, and the 1963 military coup. Kennedy’s role in relation to Berlin, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Peace Corps, to cite a few prominent examples, are conspicuously absent. The majority of the 450 words dedicated to Kennedy’s domestic policy, meanwhile, refer to civil rights issues, thus reinforcing Cuba’s longstanding (and deserved) critique of the United States on that count while sidestepping all but the most superficial consideration of economic policy.

More important than what EcuRed will mean for those outside the island, however, is the question of what it will mean for Cuban citizens. As I hope to have shown, EcuRed shows little promise of expanding the range of information to which Cuban citizens have access. Neither a historical nor philosophical discussion of press freedom is in the offing. There will be no biographies of Cuban dissidents. Thorough treatments of liberal or anarcho-syndicalist economic models will probably not appear. Descriptions of NFL football, Disney World, iPads, and 3D Imax movies are unlikely.

Nonetheless, EcuRed – in conjunction with the Cuban state’s efforts to make internet access available in Post Offices (Correos de Cuba), cyber cafés, and community centers – should drastically increase the amount of information to which most Cubans have access, even if they are restricted to the island’s intranet or fearful of accessing outside sources. On an island where books and magazines, especially new ones, must surely be a luxury for most citizens, providing access to a massive trove of digital information is no small success. Nor can the information available through EcuRed be dismissed as merely socialist propaganda. There are entries on Buddhism (~1,000 words), rock’n’roll (~3,750 words), drugs (~12,000 words), internet connection technologies (~1,700 words), kung fu (~2,400 words), and many other subjects that hardly serve to foment a monolithic social understanding.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government has committed to digitizing all of the texts used in the country’s general and university education system and making them available via EcuRed’s “virtual library” (“biblioteca virtual“). At the moment, this appears to have been only very partially accomplished, but if and when it happens, Cubans across the island will be able, for example, to indulge their interest in chemistry or physics, learn new agricultural skills, study foreign languages, or learn musical theory. These may not be direct paths to the attainment of those political and economic freedoms that US citizens can find so glaringly absent in Cuban society, but one would be hard pressed to argue that they do not offer routes toward the type of individual self-realization that can truly and significantly improve one’s quality of life and fortify the social fabric of a nation.





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